On Saturday night, as Sir Ben Ainslie headed out of the post-race press conference, he darted to the right, making for the team boat docked at the end of the wharf that would deliver him back to the Ineos Team UK base.
It was only when the British team entourage, which included his wife Georgie, caught up with him, that he realised he had forgotten about the camera crews and journalists waiting in the mixed zone on the other side of the media centre.
No one could blame Ainslie for having his mind on other things, after sealing a passage to the Prada Cup final with a tense and terrific win over Luna Rossa, but it was probably his first false move of the past five weeks.
The 43-year-old is always quick to heap praise and credit on the entire team, especially the Ineos Team UK shore crew, which has worked wonders with their overhaul of Britannia.
But Ainslie’s performance over the last month – on and off the water – has been peerless, exhibiting all the traits that made him the most successful Olympic sailor in history.
He’s had great support, particularly from team benefactor Sir Jim Ratcliffe, chief executive Grant Simmer and tactician Giles Scott, but the British turnaround has been centred on Ainslie.
During the dark days of December, when their boat could barely finish a race, let alone be competitive, Ainslie never shirked his duty. He fronted every media conference and fulfilled every interview request, determined to shield the rest of the team from any flak. Ainslie was brutally honest about their plight, while also maintaining some faint optimism.
There were sleepless nights in the Ainslie household in Ponsonby, but he never faltered in his leadership and drive. He inspired, cajoled and directed and team members still talk about the speech he made after the disastrous first day of the America’s Cup World Series as a pivotal moment.
Ainslie, along with his chief lieutenant Scott, was near flawless in the Prada Cup round robin series. They won just about every start, reeled in significant deficits and continually made the right calls at the right times.
And now they have three weeks to develop their boat.
That’s why Kiwis might be just a little more nervous about March, with the looming prospect of taking on Ainslie and Ineos. The suspicion remains that Te Rehutai will be quick – super quick – but it will need to be, as there won’t be much margin for error if the British are the Cup opponents.
Ainslie was superb in the starting duels in Bermuda in 2017 and has continued that here.
And remember Ineos Team UK led Team New Zealand for the first two legs during one race in the World Series, back when Britannia resembled a tugboat. Their crew work since has been a class above the other two challengers and the presence of Ainslie seems to infuse the team with belief.
“It’s been a whirlwind couple of weeks for us,” reflected Ainslie. “A terrible build-up, through the Christmas Race and World Series and I am so proud of how the team has turned things around.
“That said, we’ve won a few races, we have got ourselves into the Prada Cup final but we know we have got a long way to go.”
The next period won’t resemble the pre-Prada Cup rescue mission, but it will still be foot to the floor in search of boat speed gains.
“We need to keep that intensity going, and keep that momentum going,” said Ainslie. “We have got some changes coming, and we know what we want to do to the boat, but that won’t be any less frantic.
“Every day that you get out on the water, you know that you are going to gain and you are going to improve. We need to get these changes done quickly, get out on the water and keep moving forwards.”
Ainslie, along with the majority of the team, enjoyed his first day off since Boxing day on Sunday, before the work starts again on Monday.
There was also a low-key celebratory function at their base on Saturday night, to mark the first time a British team has reached the challenger final since Victory in 1983.
Given their capacity they have shown to improve thus far, and Ainslie’s relentless will to succeed, it might not be the last time the champagne flows at the Ineos Team UK headquarters this summer.
Heading into the Cup racing?
• Give yourself plenty of time and think about catching a ferry, train or bus to watch the Cup.
• Make sure your AT HOP card is in your pocket. It’s the best way to ride.
• Don’t forget to scan QR codes with the NZ COVID Tracer app when on public transport and entering the America’s Cup Village.
• For more ways to enjoy race day, visit at.govt.nz/americascup.
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